Happy Madison Productions – the production company founded by Adam Sandler in 1999 – has been so prolific, so successful and produced work so instantly recognisable that its films practically constitute a genre of their own. The company is named for the two films that essentially form the blueprint for their core formula, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, and most of their films are just variations on their basic gimmick: a pathetic man goes through a series of humiliations and learns a lesson about himself.
It’s a story that can be told more or less sincerely, with genuine heart (Happy Gilmore) or none at all (Billy Madison), as a rags to riches tale (Mr. Deeds), a buddy comedy (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), a rom-com (50 First Dates) or a sci-fi action movie (Pixels), but always with that same central character arc and Happy Madison’s trademark broad, vulgar, puerile sense of humour. The most famous and successful usually star Sandler himself, but they’ve produced vehicles for other members of his posse, from the comparatively successful David Spade (Joe Dirt) and Kevin James (Paul Blart) to bit players like Allen Covert (Grandma’s Boy) and Nick Swardson (Bucky Larson). In recent years, they’ve begun to do more ensemble comedies (Grown Ups, Pixels, The Ridiculous 6) and dual-lead films (The Do-Over, The Week Of, Father of the Year) with multiple pathetic men, and they’ve produced films outside that mould altogether (Reign Over Me, Funny People, The Shortcut), but the formula of their core product hasn’t really changed in over twenty years. That is the Happy Madison film.
Click is the sixteenth film released by Happy Madison. It’s about a guy who gets a TV remote that controls reality. The first thing he does when he realises that he can manipulate the flow of time is fast-forward his pooping dog. Click is also the first film I ever cried at. I’d certainly had intense emotional reactions to movies before, like when a teacher in my primary school showed us Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 adaptation of The Secret Garden and I realised for the first time that my parents would die one day. I remember films before Click that got me choked up or made tears well in my eyes. But the first film I cried at – sobbed at, really – was Click. I’ve revisited it every couple of years since I saw it as a child, and every couple of years, I still like it. Sometimes more than the last time, sometimes less. Sometimes exactly how I remember it, sometimes as if I’m watching it for the first time. It’s not the best movie Adam Sandler has ever done (Punch-Drunk Love) or his best performance (Uncut Gems) or the best film ever produced by Happy Madison (Funny People). But it is a great film, one I’ve loved for most of my life and expect I will always love in the simple, uncomplicated way we love the movies that made us.
If you know anything about Happy Madison, you know their films are considered lowbrow trash, and not particularly unfairly. I’ve called the entire existence of Happy Madison a scam before, and I’m happy to do so again now, because it is. But just as Vox publishes a lot of great cultural writing while pretending to be a journalistic outlet, Happy Madison has produced good films. There’s a temptation in defending single works of a largely reviled kind to try and distance the particular from the general, to say “I know this is technically one of those, but it’s not really one of those”. That’s not necessarily a dishonest move: Reign Over Me, a drama about a mentally-ill 9/11 widower starring Sandler and produced by Happy Madison, is very much not a Happy Madison film in the sense I described above. But it’s too often less about clarity than not admitting you like something disreputable. I love Click, but I would never claim, as I have with Reign Over Me or Funny People, that it “isn’t really a ‘Happy Madison’ film”. Of course it’s a Happy Madison film. It’s the most Happy Madison film ever made. It’s the vindication of the Happy Madison film as a genre.
Immediately, an objection springs to mind: The Wedding Singer is definitely a better film than Click. It may predate the company, but it’s definitely a Happy Madison film, both in genre and personnel. Both were produced by Jack Giarraputo, co-owner and president of Happy Madison. The Wedding Singer shares not only its star with Click, but its director (Frank Coraci), production designer (Perry Andelin Blake) and casting director (Roger Mussenden). It’s not just a Happy Madison film, it’s very likely the best Happy Madison film anyone will ever make. It’s certainly, and justly, the one with the best chance to endure as a cinema classic. But I don’t think The Wedding Singer can ever vindicate the genre, because it’s lightning in a bottle. You could never in a million years plan for chemistry on the screen like Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler have in The Wedding Singer, either as individual performers or as scene partners. Barrymore has never since been so radiant, Sandler has never since been so charming. They reunited twice after The Wedding Singer and made dogshit films both times. You can’t vindicate a formula with a once-in-a-lifetime result.
Click isn’t lightning in a bottle. It doesn’t have particularly inspired casting choices or performances, let alone career-defining ones. It wasn’t written by anyone at Happy Madison: Sony wanted to give Adam Sandler a vehicle as successful as Jim Carrey had in Bruce Almighty, so they bought a script from the writers of Bruce Almighty and then asked Adam Sandler to be in it. When he signed on, the Happy Madison machine kicked into gear. Juan José Campanella, future winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, exited as director and Frank Coraci took his place. Sandler’s writing partner Tim Herlihy revised the script into a Happy Madison film. Pretty much every department head, from editor Jeff Gourson to costume designer Ellen Lutter, had worked on multiple Happy Madison films already, and those that hadn’t then, have now. Click vindicates the Happy Madison film as a genre because it doesn’t have any of the special, irreplaceable magic of The Wedding Singer and it’s still a great movie. It’s what happens when the machine of Happy Madison runs perfectly.
Click’s plot is essentially a riff on the “watching your own life to learn a lesson about yourself” plot popularised by A Christmas Carol, though it’s more overtly influenced by two American films: It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day. Michael Newman (Sandler) is an associate at an architecture firm struggling to balance the demands of his asshole boss (David Hasselhoff) with the needs of his wife Donna (Kate Beckinsale) and their two kids, Ben and Samantha. While trying to buy a universal remote control in a Bed, Bath & Beyond, he meets a mysterious man named Morty (Christopher Walken), who gives him a remote that literally controls the universe. Michael initially uses the remote to his advantage, but the remote is designed to learn his preferences and starts to skip over huge sections of his life. Along the way, there’s humiliation and heartbreak, with a mix of genuinely good gags, cheap but pleasant laughs, and an unfortunate number of hacky racial jokes.
When I describe the archetypal Happy Madison protagonist as a pathetic man, I don’t mean they’re personally embarrassing or have a low social status (though they’re usually one or the other). I mean that they have pathos. Happy Madison films are comedic studies of men in pain, who lack something in themselves or their lives, who feel stuck in place and cannot go on like this forever. Sandler in particular is great at playing these kinds of characters, men who are frustrated with their lives, but resigned to them nonetheless, men who feel emasculated and overlooked, and who inevitably snap and do something stupid at least once per film. He has subtly expressive eyes that betray pain easily, a hangdog demeanour he’s grown into with age, a scratchy voice that cracks softly when he’s sad. A lot of analysis of the decline of Happy Madison, including mine, has focused on the changing class character of Sandler’s protagonists. They’re mostly working-class schlubs in his early films, then get increasingly wealthy until the early 2010s – when his default was plastic surgeons and ad execs, and the films hit their creative nadir – then get poorer again after Happy Madison signs their exclusive distribution deal with Netflix in 2014. It didn’t turn them around right away or anything, and they’ve never reached the heights of their early years, but it has certainly played a role in their moderate creative renewal on streaming.
Partly it’s that the Happy Madison formula relies on the pathos of its characters to keep us on their side despite their flaws and their often unpleasant behaviour. It’s why Kevin James and, to a lesser extent, David Spade have sustained their drawing power as Happy Madison leads reasonably well, while Rob Schneider lives on the scraps at their table. I’m not calling James and Spade masters of the craft or anything, but they know how to be vulnerable, to show a bit of humanity, whereas any child with a sock and two buttons could bring more pathos to a character than Rob Schneider. Obviously, wealthy characters can have pathos – Charles Foster Kane is nothing but pathos and dry wit – but in broad, formulaic comedies like Happy Madison films, an underdog dynamic does a lot with a little to build out characters, their relationships and their world, creating easy villains and organic premises for the humiliations that structure the narrative. And rich people are not natural underdogs. It’s just never gonna be as immediately affecting when your uphill battle is being fought by someone who’s king of the fucking mountain. But I also think the people who make Happy Madison films are just more fluent in comedy with a class dynamic, whether it’s bare-bones anarchic snobs vs slobs stuff, sports comedies about ragtag teams of misfits winning the big game to save the community centre from an evil property tycoon, or rom-coms where the guy from the wrong side of the tracks gets the girl.
Click is instructive in this regard, particularly in contrast to Anger Management. Both protagonists are middle-class guys with white collar jobs that straddle the line between creative and corporate – Michael is an architect, Dave works at a pet clothing company – who get disrespected, overlooked and taken advantage of by their asshole bosses. But that relationship is just shorthand for underdog in Anger Management. Dave’s pathos doesn’t come from his class position, but his trauma: he was pantsed as a child just as he was about to kiss a girl, leaving him pathologically conflict-avoidant and terrified of public displays of affection. Anger Management is a personal journey for Dave, a story of overcoming his demons, and it’s rooted in his very specific pain. Michael has bad memories of being excluded by kids from wealthier families as a child, but he doesn’t have some defining moment that shaped his life like Dave. He doesn’t have trauma. He has class resentment. It’s a feeling that Happy Madison is good at evoking, especially in villains like snobby golf pro Shooter McGavin and yuppie scumbag Glenn Gulia. But class isn’t just a dynamic in Click, it’s the dynamic. It’s not just a story about class resentment. It’s a story about alienation.
Michael is a working-class kid who grew up to be a middle-class striver. He works late, he works at home, he works at weekends. He takes on last-minute assignments and kisses his boss’s ass, hoping for the big win that’s gonna make him partner. His purest motive is family: he wants to take care of them, give his kids everything he never had and buy his wife nice things. He wants to be a partner in part so he can delegate all his work and actually spend time with his loved ones. But he also has less noble motives. He wants status, respect and power. He wants the office, the car, the house. He has a blood feud with his ten-year-old neighbour, Kevin O’Doyle, who taunts Michael and his kids with the latest thing his parents can afford and Michael can’t. It’s the spectre of Kevin that sends Michael out shopping for the remote. (“The O’Doyles got a stinking universal remote control. We’re gonna have one too.”) His work is slowly alienating him from his family. He stays late at the office, then works in the basement all night when he gets home. A treehouse he was building in the garden has “kind of been halfway done for two months now”. He hardly spends time with his kids except at the dinner table. He doesn’t make an effort to see his parents. He’s too tired to be intimate with Donna at the end of the day. Work has made him a non-presence in his own life, and it’s for nothing. When Morty tries to warn him off his first big time skip, he compares him to the Lucky Charms leprechaun: “He’s always chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But when he gets there at the end of the day…it’s just cornflakes.”
Michael tells himself he’ll get the time back later, once he’s partner, but even the remote can’t do that. It can rewind to past events, but it can’t alter them. It can skip your mind forward in time, but your body has to stay behind and navigate the interim on autopilot. It also learns and adapts to your preferences with use, as Michael only begins to understand after missing an entire year of his life because he skipped to a promotion he’d expected to get in two months. He’d already used the remote to fast-forward through sex and skip through an illness and a fight with Donna, so when he skipped a year – and all the sex, illness and fighting within that year – the remote learned to skip them every time. By the end of the film, he’s skipped all the way to his own death, flat on his back in a hospital carpark, in the lashing rain. “The remote goes by your behaviour,” Morty told him in an earlier scene. “Every time you had a conflict between work and home, work won.”
But it’s even deeper than that, because Michael is as alienated from his work as anything else. He spends his whole life working, but never according to his creative vision. He is offended early on that he has to accommodate the crass, profit-driven tastes of a Saudi prince who wants a “big drain” put in the middle of his restaurant for wet T-shirt contests. Later, he scraps his own design in the middle of a pitch meeting in favour of one that maximises profit, in the belief securing the contract will also secure his partnership. It doesn’t, which he only learns after buying gifts he can’t afford for his kids in celebration. He snaps at the kids when they try to show him designs for houses he’d asked them to draw earlier. He says Ben’s design is stupid for having a room made of pizza. Samantha runs off in tears before he can say the same of her room made of pickles. Donna asks him if he’s lost his mind, but Michael doubles down, stops Ben as he’s climbing the stairs to bed to tell him what’s what.
MICHAEL: Hey, pizza boy. Life ain’t about bein’ creative. It’s about kissin’ ass, playing’ it safe, makin’ your boss a lot of money in hopes one day he might throw you a stinkin’ bone. Alright?
BEN: Yes, sir.
The shot of Ben on the stairs, his face in shadow except for one eye, visibly terrified of his father for what is clearly the first time, feebly squeaking out those two words so he can escape this horrible situation, has lingered in my brain a long time. Despite his flaws, the first half of Click goes out of its way to show that Michael has a warm relationship with his kids. He may miss swim meets and delay camping trips, but he’s always making Samantha laugh in a really sincere, affecting way. To see him put fear in Ben’s eyes, to watch him inflict his pain on his son, is genuinely jarring, no matter how angry we’ve seen him get at other adults or Kevin O’Doyle. Michael spends so much of the movie literally, metaphysically alienated from his body, watching it get sick and fat and old, learning of “his” actions only after they’re too late to fix. But this isn’t his doppelganger. It’s all him. This is what he’s turning himself into. Near the end of the film, he walks into the architecture firm, over a decade after his marriage ended and six years after becoming CEO, and sees a giant video display announcing him as Architect of the Year 2018. He sneers at himself. “All your dreams came true, huh, moron?” He never did build that treehouse.
Click isn’t socialist agitprop by any means, but it grasps and expresses through art many of the same aspects of the human condition that Marx and other thinkers have grasped and expressed through theory. It executes the Happy Madison formula so well, with trials and tribulations so tailored to Michael’s personality, his pathos as a middle-class striver and the lesson he needs to learn, that it ends up a sincerely moving portrait of white-collar alienation. Class is central to the conditions that warrant supernatural intervention in Click and the stories that inspired it. Ebenezer Scrooge hoards his wealth and mistreats his workers at the cost of his soul. George Bailey is planning to kill himself because the insurance policy on his life means he’s worth more dead than alive. Phil Connors is a yuppie snob who looks down on the rural residents of Punxsutawney and thinks his job is beneath him. Michael Newman is letting his work keep him from his family.
Fortunately for Michael, the remote isn’t a curse. It’s a gift. Like Scrooge and George and Phil, he has a chance to be better.
Michael resembles Scrooge in his materialism and Phil in his hunger for status, but he’s most often compared to George Bailey, not least because it’s an easy comparison to make unflattering if you’re writing a negative review. They’re both middle-class, white-collar family men brought to a moment of crisis by the ill will of a rich prick, but George Bailey is the kindest man in film history and Michael is in a years-long pissing contest with a ten-year-old boy. But it’s also kind of a weird comparison if you think about it. The whole point of these stories is for characters to learn a lesson, which usually involves overcoming a personal flaw. So many reviews of Click trash Michael for not being as likeable as George, but George is the odd one out in this genre, not Michael. The “flaw” he has to overcome is being suicidal. The “lesson” he has to learn is that his life is worth living. George Bailey is a saint compared to Michael Newman, but he gets to be a saint because of the unusual parameters of the story. Michael is just a sinner, like Scrooge, like Phil, like Jack in The Family Man or Nadia in Russian Doll. He is the protagonist of this story because he lacks something in himself. He has to change his ways before it’s too late. He needs grace. Liza Schwarzbaum, in a negative review for Entertainment Weekly, said Click “would itself like to be It’s a Wonderful Life, but Michael earns none of George Bailey’s mature wisdom honestly”. But “earn” has nothing to do with it. You can’t earn grace, that’s what makes it grace. You don’t get it because you deserve it, you get it because you need it.
Click understands that the people who need grace most are often those who deserve it least. It also understands that just because grace is good doesn’t mean it’s nice. That’s why so much Christian art, especially Catholic art, depicts grace as violence. Click isn’t a Christian movie – the Newmans are Jewish – or particularly violent outside Michael pausing people so he can kick them in the nuts, but it understands that grace isn’t supposed to be easy. Michael thinks he’s learned his lesson after losing a year of his life. He tells Donna he’s going to change and tries to throw away the remote when he realises it’s skipping not only sex, sickness and arguments, but showering, driving to work, pretty much every part of his day. But it just reappears: as Morty warned him, the item is nonreturnable. Michael goes into work (unwashed, in a bathrobe, on foot) the day after becoming partner to learn his boss is retiring and he’s been promoted. His boss predicts Michael will be CEO one day. Michael instinctively responds “I would love that” and it’s ten years later. He’s fat and divorced and his kids hate him.
Click is the first film I ever cried at, and it’s this final act that sets me off every time. After an attempt to win Donna back is spoiled by a head injury (which reveals cancer, which requires chemo, which causes a heart attack…), he jumps another six years. He arrives at work, where Ben is an architect and partner. Michael is still trying to turn it around, desperately trying to find precious time with his family before the remote takes him away again. He tells Ben he wants to take him out for ice cream. “I know your mother won’t come, but you, Samantha, Grandpa, Grandma…” Ben’s face drops. He tells Michael to sit down and have some water. It’s a strangely sweet moment. Ben’s sincere concern for his dad, even though we know he hasn’t been there for him. Michael, played just a bit crotchety, letting himself get parented a little. Humouring Ben like he’s still a child, because he is literally still a child to Michael, but impatient to get to the point. Then it comes.
“Grandpa died, Dad. He died a while back now.”
It’s a knife in the heart. Michael is instantly, viscerally distraught, but he can’t tell Ben why. He flees the office and finds his dad’s grave. He tries to rewind to the day he died, so he can say goodbye to his dad on his deathbed. Morty arrives to tell him what he should already know. He can’t go back. He wasn’t there. He asks Morty to take him to the last time he saw him. Henry Winkler is wonderful as Michael’s dad, Ted, so funny and charming and warm. He comes to the office to ask Michael and Ben on a boy’s night out – I always smile when he says “we could whistle at pretty girls” – but Michael’s autopilot doppelganger turns him down. Ted tries to coax him out by promising to tell him how to do a magic trick he did for Michael as a child. Earlier, Michael told Morty that he knew how the trick worked, but he “couldn’t let him know I knew that.” The doppelganger snaps back: “I know how you do the stupid trick. I’ve always known. Can you let me do my work?” It’s heartbreaking. Michael gets up in his own face, calls himself pathetic. He’s become the villain in his own story, the monster in the horror movie adaptation of his own life. Ted apologises for barging in, tells Michael’s doppelganger he loves him – to no response – and leaves the office in tears. Michael is inconsolable. He crosses the room to stand behind his father and listen to his final “I love you, son” over and over, pausing it as Ted turns to leave, so his dad is frozen, looking him in the eye. “I love you too, Dad,” he says, and leans over to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ll miss you.” Then, quietly. “You know that.” He looks at him a second longer. “Goodbye.”
When I say I wept, I bawled. It’s a big fucking swing for a Happy Madison film, easily dismissed as a cheap attempt at sentimentality or a thin façade of human feeling. But it’s not cheap, and it’s not a façade. It’s just good filmmaking. I cried the first time I saw it. I cry every time. Winkler and Sandler are both amazing, and it’s paced excruciatingly, in the best possible way. Few things wreck me like watching Michael watch himself, powerless to do anything. His contempt, his guilt, his shame. After, he desperately asks to go to “a good place” and ends up at Ben’s wedding, the last good place he’ll ever be. He has some fleeting opportunities to connect with his mother and Donna before a second heart attack puts him at death’s door.
The boldness of Click’s final act still impresses me fifteen years later. Not just its willingness to really put its protagonist through hell or venture into more emotional territory, but on a pure filmmaking level. The sections set in the future have some really nice production design that channels noughties design aesthetic in a very specific way, like how the water bottles in Ben’s drinks cabinet, the lamps in Michael’s office and the streetlights outside the hospital are all long cylinders. It’s far from Blade Runner, but it feels way more coherent, specific and lived-in than the legions of indistinguishable Apple Store dystopias we get today. The pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding effects look great throughout, but they really sing in that final scene between Michael and his dad. His heart attack at the wedding is also shot beautifully. Michael is dancing with Donna to their song, “Linger” by The Cranberries – performed at the wedding by the late Dolores O’Riordan herself – when he hears Samantha refer to Donna’s new husband, Bill, as “Dad”. The camera pans into a dolly zoom on his face. The song slows down. Michael staggers in an overhead shot as Bill calls out for a doctor. Close up on Michael’s face from a chestcam, sounds of panic in the crowd. Donna, Ben and Samantha run toward him, calling out to him as the sound fades. Just before he faints, he sees Morty dancing on the bandstand in a purple suit, a bubble machine blowing behind him. “It’s just cornflakes,” he says, and blows Michael a kiss. Michael falls back onto the dancefloor, all lit up in red. His eyes are glassy and he’s struggling to breathe. Fade to black.
Michael ends up stranded so far in his own future because he didn’t learn his lesson as quickly as he thought. He may have been sincere when he told Donna he wanted to change after he skips a year, but he didn’t really change his priorities. His first instinct when his boss tells him he could be CEO is to immediately affirm he wants the job, so he skips a decade. “The remote goes by your behaviour,” Morty tells him. “Lie to your wife, lie to yourself, but you cannot lie to the remote.” When Michael wakes up in the hospital after the wedding, barely able to speak, Morty is standing over him, smiling. “Why’d you make me waste my entire life?” Morty isn’t smiling when he answers. “You were fast-forwarding through your life long before you ever met me. You lived the life you chose, big shot.” Only at the end does he break the cycle. After a too-brief moment to reconnect with Samantha, Ben tells him he’s cancelled his honeymoon to manage a work crisis overseas. The fear in Michael’s eyes is the horror of recognition. He’s already watched himself become a monster, now his son is going to become on too. He ignores Michael’s pleas that it’s unfair to his wife and leaves to catch his plane. But Michael won’t relent. He unhooks all the tubes and cables, knocks out a nurse who tries to sedate him and starts limping out of the ward to save his son. Morty reappears to warn him:
MORTY: Michael, those machines are keeping you alive.
MICHAEL: l gotta talk to my boy.
MORTY: Michael, stop.
MORTY: Michael, it doesn’t have to end now.
He could turn back. He doesn’t. Plenty of modern takes on the Christmas Carol formula, especially those influenced by Groundhog Day, are very self-conscious of their genre. Characters discuss their situation and how to escape it out loud, explicitly referencing A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day in conversation. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that – Palm Springs was one of my favourite films last year – but it can kind of undermine them learning the lesson if they’ve spent the movie trying to figure out the lesson so they can learn it. It can come off insincere. But the archetypal Adam Sandler character, even more than the archetypal Happy Madison protagonist, is impulsive and short-tempered, and Michael Newman is no different. When he limps out into the rain to stop his son from ditching his honeymoon, he knows he’ll die. Morty says it’s not too late for him, but he doesn’t care. He’s willing to die to stop his son making the same mistakes he did, and he does. On his back in a hospital carpark, in the rain, surrounded by his family. Father gives son grace out of pure love, and receives grace in return. He wakes up in Bed, Bath & Beyond a changed man.
Click is far from a perfect film. Rob Schneider plays a Saudi businessman called Prince Habeeboo in brownface. There’s a blatantly transphobic joke about Michael’s assistant transitioning during a time skip. Way too much of the film is dogs humping a stuffed duck, even if it is actually pretty funny now and then. But it moves me more than I can ever express, even now, sixteen years and five thousand words later. Not because it’s some groundbreaking masterpiece, but because it tells its simple story sincerely and well. Happy Madison had a special place in my life growing up because theirs were the broad, formulaic comedies about pathetic men in crisis that had pathos, that had heart. Even when they weren’t good, they had some substance to them. But they got lazy, started phoning it in. Early Happy Madison is like a Happy Meal. Late Happy Madison – certainly pre-Netflix – is the empty box, fished from the rubbish and resold as if it’s not completely fucking hollow. There have been many attempts to imitate the Happy Madison formula, like the past ten years of Kevin Hart’s career, but it’s not the same. They just don’t have any pathos. And you need the pathos, whether you’re rooting for the protagonist or not: when you’re on their side, you feel sympathy, when you’re not, you feel schadenfreude. When I watch Holmes & Watson or Central Intelligence or, God forbid, a Melissa McCarthy movie directed by her husband, I don’t feel anything at all. I like dumb comedies about pissy, vulgar, loudmouth underdogs spitting in the faces of rich assholes and I love them when they have heart. Michael Newman doesn’t spit in his boss’s face. He pauses reality and farts into his open mouth. Then he dies in the rain to save his son’s soul.
What more could you want?